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Drought-proofing requires complete plant recovery

Deep roots and plenty of mature plant material build soil health and soil life and hold water.

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke

July 3, 2018

4 Min Read
Warm-season plants need to start their growth while the spring is still young, and dense fescue stands make this impossible.Alan Newport

When I wrote this it was mid February and bluegrass had greened up and made some growth. The same was true of white clover and several herbs and forbs. Kentucky 31 fescue also was breaking green.

David Pickle from southeast Oklahoma called about that time and said our recommendations on managing away from KY31 were showing remarkable results and he has a lot of pastures where he does not anticipate fescue-related anxiety this year. Eastern Oklahoma along the I-40 corridor can yield problems related to fescue that parallel the ones we have experienced here on Tennessee’s Highland Rim. (See the 2014 story on Cooke's methods.)

Recently I reviewed an article on grazing fescue and other cool-season plants in late winter and early spring. The emphasis and recommendation was on leaving residual leaf mass above the ground to gain animal health and forage stand.

In light of that, let’s think about the natural model, and production and profitability. Animal health is always a necessity for long-term success.

The first rule that comes to mind is the fact that plant diversity and high plant biomass yields system stability.

Cattle can be expected to increase their performance on higher-energy forage diets that are loaded with high-starch plants. By definition these are warm season (C4) grasses, legumes and forbs. They require deep roots and high soil mineralization, for which calcium (limestone) is the big driver.

To make quality feed they need to start their growth while the spring is still young (early to mid April or before). Some of the C4s don’t do much before mid-May but when conditions are right they need to get started. This cannot happen when there is a sea of tall thick fescue, ryegrass, bluegrass and other cool-season plants standing dense above them. The same problem can happen when the clover is too plentiful.       

There are bunches of folks still recommending what I call a “nice-guy approach” to grazing that includes very little cattle impact on pasture plants. I often wonder if these people ever tried to picture a huge herd of buffalo moving across a prairie or savanna in the late winter and spring. The wolves would be hungry and have the herd packed tight. The buffalo (cattle) would be energy deficient and going after all the nutrients in the short green plants all the way to the ground. The brown material on top would be either eaten or ground into the wet soil. Short green grass and forbs and their crowns are favorites and are natural feed. The cattle need the standing brown but the green is the lure. If we have both green and brown the cattle start moving quickly out of the winter.

Truth is that if we fail to have lots of tall brown grass in March and April chances are that we are a long ways from being drought proof. In our country, if we don’t make high impact for short periods of time the KY31 and other cool season plants will take over when moisture is ample. They leave us with little to nothing when summer comes and it turns dry. The Summer slump is manmade.

Nice-guy pasture management will routinely prove that   “Nice Guys Finish Last”. Our spring grass management is not a cookbook but our goals always include animal health, soil growth preparation, profitability, drought proofing, and ranch protection. The boogie man might take us out but it won’t be the natural model and it will not be from eating a plant too short for short periods of time. Remember that high densities for extremely quick times is the natural model. Anyone that misses or fails to understand and mimic the natural model is headed for failure. Apply the principles of the Creator or fail. By the way, I define failure as missing of the mark. It is sad that we continue to see research published that aims directly away from nature, as it tempts many to follow in those footsteps.

Severe grazing with high stock densities following complete plant recovery is Boom and Bust. Rapid movement is required and so is high impact. The results are phenomenal.

The late Terry Gompert, a grazing guru from Nebraska, was here in 2009 and said, “If you’ve got a cool-season predominant pasture you need to manage for warm-season plants.”

Along the same lines, Montana rancher Ray Bannister says to “knock the hell out of what is there and consider it to be good.” He also says to “plan for what you want and use and be grateful for what you get.”

When we get our stocking rate right, graze in high densities, keep the cattle moving, and recover the plants completely before re-grazing we have moved towards being drought-proof. Yes, every location is different and our education continues but the mistakes can get to where they are very small.

Truth is that we need to leave the gentle approach to cattle handling, not to pasture and land management. Drought-proofing starts early in the spring and lasts throughout our careers. We have learned how to create deserts and I think we can learn to fix them.

About the Author(s)

R. P. 'Doc' Cooke


R. P. "Doc" Cooke, DVM, is a mostly retired veterinarian from Sparta, Tennessee. Doc has been in the cattle business since the late 1970s and figures he's driven 800,000 miles, mostly at night, while practicing food animal medicine and surgery in five counties in the Upper Cumberland area of middle Tennessee. He says all those miles schooled him well in "man-made mistakes" and that his age and experiences have allowed him to be mentored by the area’s most fruitful and unfruitful "old timers." Doc believes these relationships provided him unfair advantages in thought and the opportunity to steal others’ ideas and tweak them to fit his operations. Today most of his veterinary work is telephone consultation with graziers in five or six states. He also writes and hosts ranching schools. He is a big believer in having fun while ranching but is serious about business and other producers’ questions. Doc’s operation, 499 Cattle Company, now has an annual stocking rate of about 500 pounds beef per acre of pasture and he grazes 12 months each year with no hay or farm equipment and less than two pounds of daily supplement. You can reach him by cell phone at (931) 256-0928 or at [email protected].

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